Dan Ain was studying to become a lawyer and working on a movie set in New York City when the 2001 terrorist attacks brought down the World Trade Center skyscrapers, leaving Ain with the sense he should run downtown to help — but feeling he had nothing to offer the victims or survivors.
Six days later, he attended Rosh Hashanah services and felt — like many of his young adult peers — that what he was hearing and experiencing in the synagogue did little to salve the pain and sense of loss.
“At a time when people’s hearts were broken and we were seeking solace and community, there seemed to be a disconnect of the beauty found in the Torah and the way in which it was being presented,” he said. “This is such a beautiful tradition, and it’s not being presented in a way that’s palatable or presentable to people anymore, and I felt a calling to serve.”
That began a journey through rabbinical school and some of New York’s most innovative shuls that has now landed him in San Francisco as the new senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom.
He brings to the Bay Area an exuberant approach that uses music, art and sharing in a form of Judaism that challenges many of the late 20th-century rules of Conservative synagogue worship.
He is the co-founder, along with his wife, Alana Joblin Ain, of “Because Jewish,” a startup community aimed at young adults where poems mingle with prayer and klezmer brunches mix with Bible study. The New York-based experience offers on its website “to bring Judaism into the now.”
Hanukkah parties and Rosh Hashanah services have been held at a bowling alley, while an event at a yoga house explored “the space in between Judaism and Buddhism.”
Ain, 41, told J. his goal at Because Jewish — which will continue despite his departure to the West Coast — was to attract often unaffiliated folks his age and younger, who felt the last place they could attain spiritual insight was at a Jewish worship event.
The group’s intimate and often unconventional events actually are grounded in ancient forms of worship, he said.
“I don’t feel that we’re breaking with tradition,” he said. “I feel we’re trying to show people how much the tradition is on point today. I’m breaking with the presentation that has become part of what we know as late 20th-century Judaism.
“Every generation presents the tradition in a way that’s going to be most resonant. The texts are the same, it’s just a matter of how we’re communicating them.”
In San Francisco, Ain will be replacing Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, a native of Toronto who is moving back to Canada to take over as senior rabbi at Shaare Zion Congregation in Montreal. Glazer had been at Beth Sholom since 2014.
Ben Chinn, president of the Richmond District synagogue, said Ain’s “positive and imaginative vision of Conservative Judaism appealed to us as the best way to keep our membership engaged and attract the growing number of San Francisco Jews who have no synagogue affiliation.”
Ain won’t be the first rabbi to push the envelope at Beth Sholom, where Rabbi Alan Lew served from 1991 to 2005. Lew was a poet and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism.
“Rabbi Ain clearly has the desire and ability to continue to move us forward in this way,” Chinn added, “and we are excited to discover with him new and meaningful ways of Jewish living, prayer, practice and learning that we can share with the wider San Francisco Jewish community.”
Before Ain co-founded Because Jewish three years ago, he spent two years as an assistant rabbi in New York’s Greenwich Village at the New Shul with founder Niles Goldstein, now the rabbi at Napa’s Congregation Beth Shalom.
“Dan, like me, we’re both acquired tastes,” Goldstein told J. “I think he’s innovative, I know he’s eclectic. He’s got just that kind of creativity and sensibility that will work well in the Bay Area.”
Building a startup at Because Jewish, which does not have a permanent home, made it easier for Ain to offer spiritual experiences than to establish religious practices. At Beth Sholom, Ain said, he’ll have a base to do both.
One thing he plans to bring with him from Because Judaism is a heavy connection to music, from klezmer to blues. He doesn’t perform the music, leaving that to friends and colleagues.
“I have no musical skill, I have no singing skill, I can barely draw a stick figure, I can’t dance a lick, but I’ve always had this creative energy I wanted to express,” Ain said. “Music is prayer, music is spirituality. For me that’s an art form, how you are communicating and how are you sharing religious experience.”